Are social media platforms like Twitter designed with democracy in mind? This is a topic of much discussion and some concern, especially in this era of automated internet bots. And of course, much of the discussion is taking place on Twitter itself. But what tweets are real? Which ones have a person behind them? What ones can you trust?

Concerns about the impact Twitter might or might not be having on democracy have been mounting for some time. One galvanizing force for this was the role Twitter played in the 2016 US presidential. Researchers have speculated that a large number of tweets generated during that campaign (on both sides) were generated by bots. This speculation has been explored further with the use of BotorNot, a piece of technology that can indicate the likelihood of a Twitter account being run by automatic bots (rather than a human). However, using this technology, Andrew McGill from The Atlantic, found that the likelihood of bots creating the tweets generated by candidates is low. To do this, he ‘drew a random sample from 270,000 retweets of the three main presidential contenders over Memorial Day weekend, testing about 11,000 with the detector.’ He did, however, explain that BotorNot was not foolproof.

One of Twitter’s issues is it doesn’t approach moderation of content like a mainstream media entity, yet it now plays a very critical role in how people see and understand news.

Which possibly leaves us more confused and cautious than ever. But perhaps another way to think about this is to consider the idea of participation in the public space, questions of power and agency, and access, and the role technology such as Twitter in this field.

Twitter and democracy

According to network scientist, Vyacheslav W. Polonski from Oxford University, social media creates a very visible avenue for discussion about all manner of things. Sometimes this activity becomes very powerful.

‘People are encouraged to speak up online about matters they deem to be of public concern, so the internet shows just how diverse public opinion can be. This is particularly visible at times of controversy, when a motivated group of users can be relied upon to speak out. They are capable of applying enormous pressure in these moments.’

Since its beginnings back in 2006, Twitter has been right there, encouraging people to voice and share information and their views on a huge range of topics. And in many ways, that has been its strength given the limited capacity most people have in creating content for mainstream media. Platforms like Twitter have enabled communities of practice to coalesce, so that, for example, people with quirky, shared interests like Japanese printmaking (mine), can come together and connect. It has allowed people with an interest in more mainstream topics to follow and discuss with leaders in their field in a way that has flattened many traditional hierarchical patterns of interaction. One key area where this is happening is in academia where it ‘enables the circulation of hunches and tips, the lifeblood of scholarship’, according to Les Back, academic and author of the book, Academic Diary. Others, however, argue Twitter has created new hierarchies in academia based on follower numbers.

Could now be the time for a cooperatively run, open source alternative to Twitter, perhaps structured along the lines of Wikipedia?

The increase of online trolling has potential to curtail free speech. One reason for this being that ‘the platform’s community guidelines are enforced haphazardly’, as Charlie Warzel from BuzzFeed sees it. This is despite the fact that Twitter was developed to give a voice to users, and this being a key founding principle, according to Charlie. Issues of free speech and freedom from online harassment are real for all forms of social media. One of Twitter’s issues is it doesn’t approach moderation of content like a mainstream media entity, yet it now plays a very critical role in how people see and understand news.

Technology + social behaviour

It’s useful to separate out the technology from the social behaviour at this point in the discussion about Twitter and democracy. And bring design into the equation.

Part of the concern mounting about Twitter and democracy is that diversity is being watered down or even completely drowned. This is partly a result of the Twitter algorithm that curates content according to a user’s followers and tastes (as indicated through a range of engagement such as likes, followers, content posted, your bio). This shapes a bubble, along with the content of those you choose to follow, where alternative views are unlikely to make it through. We simply don’t see them.

This narrowing of perspective is a problem for democracy. But not a new one, and not one that Twitter has produced. Mainstream media has been critiqued for decades due to its lack of representation of ordinary people, and especially those from minority groups. If anything, platforms like Twitter, can assist with accessing and hearing others, but we need to understand how to use it (and other platforms) better. There is much we can do, as users of social media, to contribute to democracy building. And the agency in this action is empowering.

What can we do?

Firstly, we can use our critical capacity to look closely at what we are reading on Twitter. Sounds obvious, right? Well yes, but are you fully aware of who you’re following and what you’re seeing (and believing) as you look at the content flowing through your timeline? One way you can do this is check a few things to make sure the Twitter account you’re about to follow is run by a real person. Do they have a bio? Do they have an image in their avatar? Read their bio. Does it contain a link to a website? If so, click on it and look. Is it a link to a blog? If so, does it contain regular content that looks as though a human being wrote it and not a bot? One way to tell is to check out the author information related to the blog post or entire blog. Next, check who they follow on Twitter, and who follows them. Do they look real? Does anyone follow them? And lastly, what kind of content do they generate on Twitter? Only retweets? Then possibly that’s a red flag. How do they engage with others on Twitter? Do they appear to only inflame other users with sarcasm or harassment?

Use your critical mind to decide who you’re choosing to follow. Block bots if they find you. Read beyond the 140 characters about a news item or issue on Twitter. Take the time be informed. You have agency in this scenario, so use it. And increase your democratic capacity at the same time. After all, public engagement is key to democracy.

Mastodon is a free, open-source and decentralised social network server.

Secondly, consider alternatives. Yes, that’s right, some folk are not satisfied with the way Twitter is transforming (for many reasons) and are setting up alternative platforms where ‘designed-in conflict is absent’. Could now be the time for a cooperatively run, open source alternative to Twitter, perhaps structured along the lines of Wikipedia? This is a question Jimmy Tidey is considering. As part of a PhD at the Royal College of Art in London he’s investigating social media and democratic inclusion. Jimmy wonders if now might be the time to create a new platform ‘owned by everyone, responding to community concerns: tools to defend against trolling, manipulation by Russia or to help stem the tide of fake news.’ He’s keen on a new open source platform called Mastodon, although he’s the first to admit it needs to do some sanding of its rough edges.

I agree with Jimmy when has says the problem is not a technical one; it’s about designing for social inclusion. Part of this thinking involves designing a source with no single authority, and therefore removing the body that can censor. Jimmy claims the central question is about the kind of offer you can make to users. On a similar note, author and academic, Mark Warschauer, claims that designing for social inclusion goes beyond the technology and is about ‘people’s ability to make use of those technologies to engage in meaningful social practices’. It’s about people’s access to avenues where they think they can be heard.

What will this look like in the next stage of social media development? And how will you actively help shape it?

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